Big Ears 2023 kicked off with Los Lobos, Terry Allen & David Byrne, 700 Bliss, Liturgy, more (review)
"Big Ears is not a cool name for a festival, sorry. I hope the person that named it isn't here tonight," Moor Mother half jokingly said to the crowd on Thursday night at 700 Bliss' show at Knoxville's Big Ears Festival. "But," she added, "they let us sound scientists do whatever they want. I don't know what you fuckers listen to -- Taylor Swift, Counting Crows, Rusted Root -- but we’re glad you showed up tonight."
Moor Mother was clearly generalizing, maybe specifically about other Tennessee festivals, but Big Ears is not your average festival. Celebrating its 10th edition, it is here for the sound scientists, the seasoned vets, the up-and-comers, the weirdos, forward-thinkers, cult heroes, iconoclasts, virtuosos, and visionaries. Even the occasional Very Popular Artist. Taylor Swift would probably even be welcome, especially now that she hangs out with Aaron Dessner, though for what it would cost to book her, I get the feeling Big Ears would rather spend that on John Zorn, Lonnie Holley, Andrew Bird, Makaya McCraven, Bill Frisell, and Bela Fleck.
And David Byrne. He's officially at Big Ears presenting his "Reasons to Be Cheerful" talk (and a screening of his 1986 oddball feature film, True Stories) but made an appearance early on opening night, joining Texas singer-songwriter Terry Allen at his set at the gorgeous Tennessee Theatre. (It will probably not be Byrne's last surprise performance of the weekend.) He came out to perform his 1994 solo song "Buck Naked," which Terry covered on his 1996 album, Human Remains. It was the bow on a set that was already fantastic, full of warm humor, rich character detail, great songs and great playing via his Panhandle Mystery Band. What a way to start a festival.
Spread out over a dozen or so very nice venues in downtown Knoxville, Big Ears is a very walkable festival, but you do get in your steps. After Terry, I dashed six or so blocks over to The Standard to catch Bill Orcutt. "Hope you like guitars," he told the crowd, getting some laughs. "We've got four of 'em!" Specifically this show was a performance of last year's Music for Four Guitars. On that record, he played all four himself, but here his Guitar Quartet (Shane Parish, Ava Mendoza, and Wendy Eisenberg) brought the short, complex, hypnotic compositions to skronky and very loud life.
I then went back to the Tennessee Theatre for Los Lobos, who were performing their first of two Big Ears sets this weekend. The East L.A. icons are celebrating their 50th anniversary and packed the venue with enthusiastic fans, first with an acoustic set before going electric. Accomplished musicians that they are, Los Lobos still play it loose. After a moment of slight confusion as to what they were supposed to play next, Cesar Rosas let us know "We're still working on our show, guys. Fifty years, and we're still working out the kinks." Rosas brought a lot of good humor between songs, like when he noted it had been a long time since the band had played Knoxville. "At least I think. I've been wrong before." Their set drew from all over their impressive discography, but songs from 1992's classic Kiko drew the night's biggest applause.
From there it was off to see sound scientists 700 Bliss -- the avant garde duo of DJ Haram and Moor Mother -- who kept things weird, lo-fi and compelling (it was one of a number of no-badge-required shows at Big Ears). I squeezed in a few more acts after that, catching a handful of songs from The Mountain Goats, who were playing spacious club Mill & Mine, where they had folks bopping along to songs like the weary but triumphant "This Year," which will likely never not feel relevant.
I ended Night 1 back at The Standard for Liturgy, whose pummelling set broke my brain just a little and did further damage to my already tinnitus-inflicted eardrums. The group's brand new album 93696 is ambitious with strings, electronic and choirs, but here they were in tight quartet mode, an amorphous series of drones, taut machine gun attacks and constant left turns punctuated by occasional harrowing yelps and screams from bandleader Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix. Lynchian is an overused critics crutch, but Liturgy at times felt like the aural equivalent of a David Lynch film -- unsettling, overwhelming, confusing, but magnetic and unforgettable. It was an intense finish to a very diverse night of music, and a primer for what Big Ears has to offer the rest of the weekend.
Check out a few more iPhone pics from Thursday night below.